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From The Socialist newspaper, 7 May 2014

Schools - Would things get better under Labour?

Martin Powell-Davies, National Union of Teachers (NUT) national executive member, looks at David Blunkett's Labour Party Policy Review on education

Teachers reading the Guardian's headline, "Labour vows to rub out Michael Gove's education reforms", hoped a miracle had happened. Labour shadow junior education minister Tristram Hunt recently railed against "wasting political energy on undoing reforms, that in certain situations build rather successfully on Labour Party policy". Had Blunkett's review recommended significant changes instead?

Unfortunately, the Guardian headline is wishful thinking - or New Labour spin. A quick read of the full 'Putting students and parents first' report soon confirms that Blunkett has only made very minor corrections. Worse, the Blunkett review extends the process of marketisation of schooling even further.

This is hardly surprising. David Blunkett was an architect of New Labour's education policies around 2001 with his talk of putting "relentless pressure" on teachers. Thirteen years on, the pressure is even more relentless and demoralisation and turnover of teachers remains a disaster for education.

A sentence in the report suggests even longer hours might really be on offer: "Freedom for all schools to adapt the school day and the school week". Tory Minister Gove backed away from his proposals to alter teachers' work time, but Blunkett's review implies that Labour might go where Gove feared to tread.

Similarly, there is nothing to suggest that Labour will be funding schools sufficiently to recruit more teachers and reduce workload, nor to allow the improved access to professional development that the Review supports. What stood out to me were the references to 'value for money' - always a euphemism for spending cuts.

Of course, some Review proposals correct some of the more nonsensical parts of Gove's regime - like the wasteful spending on Free Schools in areas with surplus school places. However, Blunkett's plans to stop Academy chains misusing funds on executive salaries seem to forget what drives some 'entrepreneurs' to get involved in the education market in the first place!

Even the supposedly clear recommendation that schools should be employing qualified teachers, is far from clearly worded. The Review actually says there is a "need to ensure that properly qualified teachers 'oversee' the learning process". 'Oversight' is a very different commitment to the one that parents and teachers would be seeking.

Blunkett's review says Labour's education proposals are about 'collaboration' not 'competition' and says that schools will have to work in partnerships. For example, primary schools will be brought together in arms-length 'Community Trusts'.

However, what he really seems to be suggesting is a managed break-up of what's left of local authority schooling. "Reformed and modernised" local authorities will be reduced to a scrutiny role, providing data for others to use. Real power would lie with regional "Directors of School Standards" to oversee school provision and 'invite proposals' for opening new schools where they judged additional provision was needed.

Blunkett wants to suggest his model will enhance parental involvement. In reality, the last vestiges of democratic local authority control over education will be lost. The 'DoSSers' will be appointed, not elected. Parents will find they have no real input.

The Review says: "Academies are here to stay and we need to build on this landscape". Blunkett tries to argue that the type of school is irrelevant; it's just the quality of teaching within them that matters. Such arguments try to ignore the effect of class and poverty, a social divide being made worse by government policies. Secondly, he fails to acknowledge that the marketisation he promotes will undermine education, not improve it.

Academy chains will become the dominant provider of schools. Yes, schools might have the power to move from one chain to another but this just reinforces the false idea that, somehow, a 'free market' between competing academy chains will benefit education. No, privatisation consistently fails public services.

Blunkett's review says: "It is our belief that best practice lies within smaller configurations, geographically-based and properly focused". But it certainly isn't recommending local authorities! Instead, it seems their place is to be taken by unaccountable locally-based academy chains.

The review tries to do the impossible - provide a manageable coherent marketplace for education. But markets aren't coherent and stable and certainly won't be accountable to parents and students. Parents and teachers together must fight for properly-funded, locally accountable, community schools, as the only way to guarantee a good local school for every child.

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In The Socialist 7 May 2014:


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